Thursday, May 26, 2016

Christianity, the King, and Culture
By Michael

With our Vagrant friends exploring the
limestone tide pools at 'Ene'io beach.
I’m not a cultural scientist, I’m just a visitor to Tonga who doesn’t speak Tongan. My assimilation into Tongan life has been extremely shallow. But I’m curious and have been trying to understand what I’ve been seeing since the day we arrived last fall.

I wrote about this in a post last December. I observed that Vava’u was being colonized, largely by Kiwi and Chinese ex-pats who were starting and running businesses. I wondered why the Tongans were sitting on the bench while foreign players were in the game, on Tongan home turf.

“Granted that ex-pats have ready access to more capital than the average Tongan. But there is a Tongan development bank in town. I’ve heard government corruption is a problem; is that limiting access to capital by entrepreneurial Tongans? Tongan life has evolved in a setting in which food and land are plentiful and the climate is friendly. Free time and attention are given to the church, to the family, to the kava bowl, and to a revered king. Have there been no cultural drivers or impetus to build business? And should there be?”

I concluded:

“Unfortunately for the people who have lived here simply and for so long, I don’t think they will have the option to continue with lives largely undisturbed and unaffected. My Western mindset is inclined to see change as progress and as opportunity for Tongans. But based on what I’ve seen, it’s not gonna happen that way.”

As we depart Vava’u for islands south, I have more to report. Following are some thoughts and anecdotes that have stuck with me.

Days ago, I happened to have a 20-minute conversation with a Tongan government official, a high-ranking person. About 110,000 people live in Tonga, not all of them Tongan (many of the aforementioned Kiwis and Chinese and a smattering of other nationalities call Tonga home). The official told me that last year, $200,000,000 in remittances came in to Tonga from Tongans living in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and other developed countries

I nodded, I regularly see long lines of people standing outside the Western Union office in Neiafu.

The official said this money leaves too many Tongans without a reason to work. He said it’s a big problem he and others in government want to solve. I got the impression he faces an uphill battle that involves more than economics. I got the impression he felt there were no answers at hand.

The average remittance can’t be large. Nobody here appears to be living the high life. Homes and cars and shoes are very modest. So how is it that this money sent home from Tongans abroad is enough to stifle entrepreneurial tendencies? Why does it still take a South African to appear on the scene to meet the demand for commercial laundry services—a booming business founded with only the capital needed to import 3 washing machines and 3 dryers?

A couple years ago, WorldatWork Journal printed an article titled “Culture: The Missing Link Between Remuneration  and Motivation” by Linda Herkenhoff, Ph.D. of St. Mary’s College. In the article, Dr. Herkenhoff tells a story from her time in Tonga:

“In a recent situation experienced by the author in Tonga, an American hotel owner wanted to provide perquisites as a performance motivator for his four management-level employees. He chose to provide company cars. He noticed the cars were usually missing even though the managers were at work. He later discovered that all employees from the cleaning crew upward borrowed the cars as needed. Tongan culture does not embrace hierarchy in business in the same way as the United States. Although Tongans have a hierarchical political structure that includes a king, prime minister and village chiefs, their day-to-day functional existence embraces an egalitarian notion that one can borrow from a neighbor without asking for permission if that person’s need is greater at that moment. This mindset limits crimes associated with stealing because Tongans are just borrowing and will return the item in good time, even if it is their neighbor’s prize pig.”

I’ll note here that, ironically, I haven’t been to a place I’ve felt more safe from theft (and crime in general) than Tonga. I never think twice about theft here.

We did some spring cleaning aboard and came up with a big pile of quality Tupperware-type containers we didn’t need. I put them in a bag and brought them down to the open food market where we buy produce from Tongan women who sell their veggies 6 days a week. I showed my bag to a seller. “Are you interested in trading for these?” She shook her head. I approached the next woman and asked the same question.

So let me set the scene, the Tongan market is small and rarely very busy. Every seller is aware of and is watching every transaction that takes place at another table. The second woman nodded and motioned for me to set the bag down next to her.

Eleanor on a hike with our friends
from Ambler. (photo courtesy Ambler)
“What do you want for them?” she said. I could hardly hear her.

“I don’t know…” I began removing pieces from the bag to display them before her. As quickly as I put containers on her table, they disappeared on to a shelf underneath. I sensed she was uncomfortable. “How about 12 dollars’ worth of your produce?”

She nodded quickly and motioned for me to stop, “That’s okay, that’s okay.” She said, pushing the bag under the table.

I picked out the veggies I wanted. She put more into my bag (I’m told that in Tongan culture, the worst trait that can be exhibited is selfishness or greed).

Then the others showed up. Two or three other women from around the market were at my side with veggies of their own, putting them into my bag. I was confused.

It was explained to me later that these women were laying claim to a share of the loot the other seller had acquired through my trade.

Going back to my conversation with the government official, he told me he no longer hires Tongan housekeepers. He said shoes will go missing and appear on the housekeeper's feet the next day. Hair clips, nail clippers, and food all disappear. He stressed that this was accepted, that the housekeepers bore no shame. They were not stealing, but borrowing, perhaps for a very long time.

There are four core cultural values in Tonga. One of them, feveitokai'aki, stresses sharing, cooperating, and fulfillment of mutual obligations. Apparently, it’s from this value that the permissiveness of borrowing at will originates.

The official told me he is Tongan but not raised to accept this interpretation. He said the “feve” culture strips people of the motivation to acquire. After all, anything you have that might be desired by your peers, you stand to lose.

'Ene'io beach wildlife.
He blamed the recent cyclone (Winston) on the relative shortage of certain root crops at the market these days. “But that’s not all. Nobody wants to farm. Our kids don’t know how to use a shovel to dig a hole in the dirt. 20 years ago, Neiafu exported crops that today we import. It’s sad, there is no excuse for importing things we could produce ourselves. We have the space, the soil, the climate. We don’t have the motivation.”

The other day we met a Japanese volunteer from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which is similar to the Peace Corps. His job for the past several months has been to teach agriculture—seed harvesting, sustainability, and the like.

The Peace Corps is here in force, we see them when they’re in town, American twenty-somethings clustered in drinking establishments not owned by Tongans. I wonder about what they’re learning about this culture before arriving. I wonder what they hope to change, to what end?

The last thing I heard on the VHF as we left Neiafu was an announcement: beginning July 3, the government will begin enforcing a law it suspended in 1982, following Cyclone Isaac. The law: no baking or selling bread on Sunday. Owners of bakeries that open on Sundays will be subject to fines and imprisonment. I’ve written before that Sundays are quiet around here. Neiafu appears deserted and the only sounds are from the churches. No swimming or play is permitted. But you could always buy bread from a back door of one bakery downtown, and from another just a few blocks away. No more.

More 'Ene'io, Windy with Shane and Ian from Vagrant.

Same place, Tina with Windy and the girls.

Andy doing some stainless welding for us at the Neiafu commercial pier.
See the pile of white stuff on the pier behind his transformer? That's
dead, broken coral. It's used extensively throughout town, for walkways
and as a building material, like gravel.


  1. Replies
    1. Maybe Ha'apai (Tongan island group south), but waiting for weather to decide for sure. Maybe Nuie, definitely American Samoa. Hello to all.

  2. Loved your blogs about the malaise that besets Tonga. How perceptive and how true! The Kingdom of Tonga is such a beautiful place that many yearn to own a slice of this piece of paradise!

    This has not gone unnoticed by some of the white-shoe brigade who have taken up residence there to engage in dealings which would appear to be scams and designed to financially exploit unsuspecting foreigners and Tongan land owners alike.

    Things have become so bad that the Government of Tonga is now forced to convene an Inquiry into the Unlawful Sale and Leases of Land in Vava'u.


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